Shrubs are most easily seen in where there are no trees, primarily in the coastal scrub zones and in the transition zones between the coast and the forests. Here these low-growing plants get plenty of sun and less competition for nutrients from tree roots. Some of the shrubs described below also exist in the pine forest. They are adapted for living without rain for months at a time, and also offer a bit of color and pleasant aromatic scents. But beware of the profusion of poison oak, which can ruin your trip if you venture into it. For that reason, it is described first.
This plant thrives and is an integral and important native plant in the Reserve and surrounding lands. Many animals use it for both food and protection from predators. It is a handsome addition to our flora with shiny green leaves which, in the fall, give us our best red-color scenery. The “leaves of three” are usually about 1 and 1/2 to 4 inches long with lobed, toothed, or scalloped edges and do resemble the lobed leaves of true oaks. Later in the season, all the leaves may be lost – deciduous – making identification far more challenging. Poison oak can be a 1 foot to over 10 feet tall, be a creeper on the ground, or a climbing vine going far up supporting trees, sometimes 30 feet or more. It can also form large masses of dense shrubs.
You need to be able to recognize this plant if you are visiting California wilderness areas, as touching it can cause an incredibly itchy, blistering, weeping, red bumpy rash that could turn into a secondary bacterial infection. The oil which causes an allergic contact-dermatitis reaction in the great majority of us can be transferred to your skin from both the leaves and the leafless branches. If you have children with you who love to touch everything, be sure to teach them about it or caution them to touch nothing!
Interestingly, Native Americans were not nearly as allergic and used poison oak in many ways, including basket weaving, making dyes, and medicinally for multiple disorders. California blackberry, another prominent inhabitant in the reserve with “leaves of three,” does not cause a rash; its thorns (or “hair” in ditty below) make it possible to distinguish it from poison oak.
Leaves of three, let it be!
If it’s shiny, watch your heinie!
If it’s hairy, it’s a berry!
Coffeeberry can be a small one foot high shrub or can grow to a towering 10 feet and lives up to 200 years. It is not a strikingly beautiful flowering plant; nonetheless, it is a handsome evergreen, very often found in native plant gardens. Coffeeberry is found throughout California mostly in woodlands, chaparral and the Northern Coastal Scrub.
Birds, deer and livestock feast upon the fruit of this native. Even if they do look like actual coffee berries, they contain no caffeine; and the two plants are not related. Coffeeberry was a source of medicine and food for Native Americans in the past. However, ingesting parts of the plant can be a dangerously effective laxative for an uninformed person.
This erect or rounded shrub is an evergreen plant with rery small leaves and leggy brittle branches, which grows up to 15 feet tall. It hates shade, and its seeds struggle to grow without sunlight. Coyote brush tolerates drought exceedingly well because the leaves have a waxy coating that reduces evaporation. Its range is widespread through California in a variety of habitats from coastal bluffs to oak woodlands, grasslands, hillsides and canyons. Coyote Brush also contains a chemical that makes it moderately fire tolerant. Even if the plant is burned, the extensive root system usually survives to sprout again.
This is a most magnificent evergreen. It can be a widely branching shrub standing two feet tall or a small tree stretching out to over twenty feet. Three prominent nearly parallel veins mark its dark green elliptical to oval leaves which complement the stunning perfumed blossoms. Eye-catching dense clusters of tiny flowers varying in color from very light to dark blue grace this plant. Widely used as an ornamental landscape plant, it has been given special recognition by the Royal Horticultural Society of England.
It is especially important for both native bees and butterflies. Many birds enjoy its seeds; hummingbirds “savor” its nectar. This plant is native to California and southern Oregon. It is drought tolerant, preferring well-drained soils near the coast. While Native Americans utilized the plant as a dye and food, their use of its fresh or dried flowers as a gentle soap is more widely known.
This plant is found in great abundance in the coastal scrub. Growing 2 to 5 feet tall, it has woody lower branches and is drought resistant. Though highly flammable, it often grows back after fires. While not a true sage, i.e., not a Salvia, the thread-like leaves do have a delicious sage-like odor thanks to its terpene oils. However, this shrub makes a horrible “neighbor” as its oils also interfere with the growth and reproduction of plants around it.
Sagebrush is perhaps the most important component of the coastal scrub. Birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals find it is a vital resource for nesting materials and food. It also provides them shelter from predators. Native Americans widely used sagebrush medicinally for both menstrual and respiratory disorders. They also used it dried as a burning smudge during purification rituals, as many people still do today.
In the Asteraceae (sunflower) family, Lizard-tail is festooned with copious small, bright, yellow flowers in umbrella-like clusters from April to September. These delightful blossoms form a floral bouquet that provides bountiful nectar for butterflies, native insects and later seeds for birds. Some Native Americans used the dried and ground seeds to make pinole, a ground meal. They also placed lizard-tail leaves on their bodies to relieve sore areas.
Lizard-tail is a handsome drought-tolerant small shrub. Because it is also wind and salt-spray tolerant, this is an important sun-loving member of the coastal scrub lands. It is usually 2 to 3 feet in height, and most often has a mounding form about 2 to 3 feet wide. The green foliage of its many branches is garnished with fine wooly hairs under the leaves giving them a silvery contrast. The common name “lizard-tail” likely refers to the end of the often many-lobed and round-edged leaves, which bear a striking resemblance to the body of a lizard. Its close cousin Eriophyllum confertiflorum, frequently called Golden Yarrow, has smaller leaves; it is also found in the reserve but is much more common inland.
This plant is a member of the sunflower (aster) family, is identified by its compact, densely-leaved evergreen bush with many branches. Endemic to California (i.e., found naturally only in California), its range stretches from Sonoma County to Los Angeles County. It is commonly found in coastal scrub communities where it is a dominant denizen, tolerant of acidic, sandy and nutrient-poor soils. The plants are one to three feet tall with tiny, dense, resinous almost tube-like leaves in a fan shape. In late summer and fall, Mock Heather’s multiple small bright flowers can paint hillsides yellow.
Butterflies, bees and other pollinators feed upon its yellow blooms. Some Native Americans used Mock Heather leaves to heal skin sores.
Compact mounds of Dune Buckwheat grace our seaside bluffs. This low-spreading evergreen is 1 to 3 feet high and usually only a few feet wide. Its leaves are small, thick, and dark green with a reddish tinge on top, while wooly white underneath. This hardy shrub is tolerant of drought, sand, salt spray and soils which are slightly acidic to alkaline. Monterey is at the northern natural limit of this species which belongs to a very large and widespread family in California, the Polygonaceae or Buckwheat family. Its small ball-shaped blossoms rise above the foliage on slender stalks in copious numbers. These “balls” come in a range of colors – delightful white to pink as well as tan and light green – all of which turn to rusty red with age. These “puny pom-poms” are distinctive and catch our attention long after the primary summer flowering has finished.